Live by the sword, die by the sword, or in this case, the finger.
Figures, doesn’t it? The Cowboys come literally a finger away from the franchises largest comeback in history (down 23-0 against the New York Giants in Dallas) but just the tip of receiver Dez Bryant’s finger landed out of bounds and spoiled what could have been a momentum-shifting win for the team at the time. Still, Dallas has won four of their last five games and was in good position to challenge for a wild card spot –thanks to a suddenly ice cold Chicago Bears team–or even the division. That is, until news broke on Monday afternoon that Bryant had broken his index finger which could require season-ending surgery. I could see Cowboy fans nationwide yell a collective “ARE YOU KIDDING ME”? After such an emotional win over the Bengals on Sunday in the wake of the tragedy that took the life of Jerry Brown Jr., the optimists out there were talking about how this win could unite the team even more and give them the strength to rally late in the season and make it into the playoffs. Most of that talked ceased upon hearing about Bryant’s injury.
It was confirmed by Bryant later Monday night that he had fractured his finger and that he was unsure if he could play through the injury. Plenty of fans were peeved about the receivers attitude toward the injury and expected a rah-rah type response in the form of a statement boasting about how no injury could keep Dez from playing. But instead, they got a shrug of the shoulder. Now I am sure a lot of people think that it is a cake walk for a professional wide receiver to play through a broken finger, just tape it up, get a cortisone shot and go out there, right? Wrong, it isn’t 100% up to Bryant even if he wants to play or not; he has to be medically cleared.
This news comes at a most inopportune time for the Cowboys considering how well Bryant had been playing lately and how he has lived up to the “elite” status put on him when he was drafted in the first round two years ago. The Oklahoma State product has produced five touchdowns in his last three games and on Sunday, eclipsed the 1000 yard receiving mark for the first time in his career. The recent consistency is a welcomed sight for Cowboys fans who would routinely get on Bryant for his tendency to disappear in the second half of games. Ironically enough, every single one of Bryant’s touchdown’s this season have come in the second half, and it is no surprise that Dallas’ offensive production is much higher in that half, as well.
If we are to assume that Bryant will be shelved for the year for arguments sake, the question becomes: how does Dallas make the playoffs now?
Losing your most dynamic offensive weapon this late in the season is usually a death sentence to teams, especially mediocre ones like Dallas. Does anybody expect Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris and Kevin Ogletree to suddenly become ten times more productive then they have been all season? I didn’t think so, Austin is the next man up a far as receivers go, but he has been inconsistent and injury-prone since he received a contract extension, still, he has the ability to be the number one guy for Romo and will have to up his game to account for Bryant’s absence in these last three weeks.
Tight end Jason Witten is Tony Romo’s security blanket and is eleven catches away from setting the single-season NFL receptions record for a tight end, but could he turn back the clock to 2007 and become a touchdown machine in the final games? Not likely, Witten is great and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he has lost Romo’s eye in the red zone and only has a few touchdowns on the season. When it really comes down to it, the only conceivable way I can think of for the Cowboys to shock the world and make the playoffs without Bryant is to throw out the playbook and use EVERYBODY.
One frustrating thing this year has been the lack of screens and trick plays from the Cowboys. I am by no means expecting Boise State out there and double-reverses being run on every other play, but things have been just too vanilla, which is a contributing factor to a 7-6 record. Screen passes require a good offensive line most of the time, which Dallas doesn’t have, but they do have a young line who, if given the chance, would be athletic enough to block downfield for a running back. Another play that I see run a lot by good offensive teams is the fake play-action boot, then throw to the opposite side where the tight end is wide open. Romo is best out of the pocket, so plays like that would be right in his wheelhouse. I could get specific with X’s and O’s here, but I doubt people will want to read that. The point is, without Bryant, Dallas needs to figure out how to turn water into wine on offense and put points up on the board consistently–which they weren’t doing even with Dez.
The last thing that I will suggest is to use third-string running back Lance Dunbar and receiver Cole Beasley. This may be a bit of homerism coming from a North Texas student, but the Lance can ball. He is a speedster who can break tackles and play any role a team needs him to be. His size is not intimidating, but is Darren Sproles, or Maurice Jones Drew? Dallas could use him on end-arounds or even as a slot receiver on various plays. Dunbar spent his entire college career at UNT proving people wrong about him, the Cowboys should give him a chance to contribute if Bryant is gone for the year.
Beasley is a similar player with upside and the kind of receiver Dallas has lacked over the years, a small guy to find the holes in the zone and be a nightmare to defenses. I know he is on the field for plenty of plays, but I rarely see him running any long out’s or in’s and he is usually just used as a decoy.
Dallas will be expected to falter without their top receiver, the next three games are against teams who don’t have a problem scoring, but the season is not over until it is over.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Bryant will try to play through the injury or not.
This writer hopes his article proves premature on that front.